Friday, December 14, 2007

History goes to the victor

It is an old adage that history belongs to the winners, and archives and libraries have long been aware that whole segments of societies, and whole societies for that matter, are underrepresented, misrepresented, or just plain not represented in the record of the past.

I was asked this morning an unusual question: "Do you have any uninteresting collections?" Since I personally find something of interest in all our collections, I was unsure how to answer. I said that, certainly, we have some collections from interesting people that are remarkably uninteresting in their contents (the personal papers that contain only reprints, the administrative records that have only meeting minutes with final decisions and no record of discussions), but that they were all interesting in their own way. The questioner rephrased: "Do you have any collections from nobodies?", meaning people who didn't go on to do much of anything. And the answer to that is yes, but not a lot.

Which begs the further question: what would you collect from a "nobody", if you could? If you wanted to show the culture of medicine from the grunt level (to put it bluntly), would personal papers be the best way to go? Or even a useful way to go? What sorts of documentation would illustrate the lives of the average physicians, or the bad physicians? Should archives concentrate on the Great Men, the men (and women) who recognize their own place in history and so collect, and deposit, written records? Are the papers of the victors the true representation of medical culture at a given point? Is there one medical culture in America, or are there many?

A glance at our collections hints at the multiplicity of cultures and communities within medicine, each of which can be remembered and reconstructed only through the study of what remains behind. History may go to the victor, whether egotist or packrat, but only if libraries and archives continue to collect and preserve collections both large and small.

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